Within a year of beginning their second stint in control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have systematically caused and entrenched an egregious regression of civil liberties and human rights, especially women’s rights. The Taliban have stonewalled every effort to engender an inclusive, representative government and political system that ensures equal rights for all, especially women. They have also continued to support and cooperate with terrorist outfits, especially al-Qaida, as evidenced by the recent killing of al-Qaida Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a safe-house in Kabul.
All of these patterns point to a deeper, more fundamental, issue. In practice, the political order the Taliban prefer — and have been entrenching since August 2021 — is incapable of accommodating crucial features like universal human rights, gender equality and justice, an inclusive and representative political system, and compliance with international law. Not only are the Taliban-preferred political order and these features incompatible with each other, the two are contrary to each other, with one espousing what the other is against.
This calls into question the wisdom and value of continuing to negotiate with the Taliban and expecting meaningful progress when there has been no change in circumstances that would help produce or even calculate an outcome that is different from what has transpired so far.
The issue here is not merely of contrasting worldviews; it is also about endgames. In Afghanistan’s case, any improvement to the current situation will depend heavily on how power is organized, validated, and regulated, and where its source lies — i.e., the design of the political order, corresponding institutional architectures, and ecosystem-level resilience.
In Context: Current State of Affairs and the Precedents Being Set
That the Taliban’s ideology and outlook have remained the same since the 1990s is well-known. However, since August 15, 2021, the group has had access to enormous power, with which it has imposed its worldview on all the people of Afghanistan, especially women and minority communities. For instance, shortly after seizing power, the all-male de facto authorities shut down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and replaced it with the so-called “Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” modeled after the same “moral” police ministry that committed and aided some of the most heinous crimes against women during the group’s first stint in power (1996-2001). This ministry was introduced by the Burhanuddīn Rabbani administration in 1992; after seizing power in 1996, the Taliban not only retained it but empowered it considerably.
In the past year alone, the group has brazenly imposed at least 30 sweeping restrictions on women; the severity of the Taliban regime’s deleterious impact on the lives of women and the public at large has been documented in detail by the United Nations and Amnesty International, among others. Collective punishment, arbitrary detention, torture, denial of access to legal aid, suspension of due process, summary extrajudicial execution, forced marriage with Taliban members, and land grabbing (especially from ethnic and religious minorities) are among the several violative practices that are a daily reality now.
The Taliban’s policies and actions not only violate rights, they completely disenfranchise the people of Afghanistan of their individual autonomy and agency, thereby deliberately producing a situation in which discrimination is the policy and organizing principle of governance. To illustrate, by virtually erasing women and their agency, the Taliban have rendered approximately 50 percent of the country’s population as objects rather than humans. Moreover, by excluding women, they have disenfranchised approximately 50 percent of the country from representation and decision-making on all levels. Together with the exclusion of the country’s diverse ethnic and religious communities from governance structures and decision-making processes, the Taliban have practically disenfranchised much of the country’s population.
There has been no improvement on any of these issues despite an entire year of various countries engaging with the Taliban. On the contrary, the situation has continued to deteriorate severely. Yet, at least 13 Taliban leaders continue to enjoy exemptions to the travel sanctions they are under, allowing them to country-hop and hold meetings with high-level officials from a variety of countries as though it were business as usual. In a rare example of accountability, in June 2022, in response to the restrictions imposed on girls’ access to education, the U.N. revoked travel exemptions granted to two sanctioned Taliban members: Abdul Baqi Basir Awal Shah (Taliban de facto Minister of Higher Education) and Said Ahmed Shahidkhel (Taliban de facto Deputy Education Minister). But this is the exception rather than the rule.
No part of this state-of-affairs provides even a shred of incentive (be it a carrot or a stick) to the Taliban for changing their behavior. On the contrary, it rewards their behavior. The Taliban have not even bothered to deliver on their obligations contained in the U.S.-Taliban agreement of February 2020, the latest evidence of which is al-Qaida Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s stay in downtown Kabul.
The Practical Consequences of Normative Contradictions
The Taliban’s interpretation of terms like “inclusion” and “women’s rights” are quite different from those of many of the people of Afghanistan (especially women) as well as the international community. The Taliban do not view equality or exercisable individual agency as constitutive elements of these terms, their corresponding experiences, or legal dimensions. Thus, when they claim respect for inclusion, representation, and women’s rights in their rhetoric, it is not quite a contradiction to their worldviews per se, but their definitions of these terms are considerably different from those of others. The mismatch of expectations is thus partly rooted in the problem of discourse semantics.
Fundamentally, the Taliban’s endgame is a political and social order that structurally concentrates power in their hands, with which they can impose their worldviews on others without checks. Discrimination, exclusion, and violence are the only methods through which this is achieved, be it in Taliban-run Afghanistan or elsewhere.
To illustrate, the Taliban do not seek or wish to participate in power or in processes to earn power. They not only seek to own all power, but also to be the source of it, one through which authority is derived and delegated. There is very little (if at all) that can be achieved by trying to negotiate with the group under these circumstances, because what the international community expects of them (such as gender equality, and an inclusive, representative political system) is precisely what will keep them from retaining such a grip on power. Moreover, even if by some miracle the Taliban somehow agree to integrate these features into their political system, the very nature of the political system will render the fate of these features perpetually vulnerable to obliteration.
What Does This Mean in Practical Terms?
The various political systems seen in Afghanistan over the past few decades have been more about power allocation than governance per se. In today’s Afghanistan, translating goals like equal rights for all and inclusive and representative governance from an aspiration to a tangible, measurable reality with any shelf life would require structural features in the country’s political order to be conducive to such a transformation.
For instance, Afghanistan would need governance and power distribution arrangements that prevent power concentration and enable people-oriented governance, where the source of the power rests with all the citizens and there is a clear, context-responsive framework for accountability and how power and authority is granted and withdrawn. Furthermore, it would need to feature robust, institutionalized checks and balances. These features, the goals, and respect for all individuals’ sociocultural sensitivities are not mutually exclusive.
Such a transformation can only be achieved through a broad-based, inclusive political process. However, given that the Taliban did not seize power through a popular mandate, do not even seek it, and their rejection of elections, the prospects of such a process are extremely poor under the prevailing circumstances.
The other alternative would involve establishing a limited-term transitional government, conducting a broad-based consultative process to develop a constitution that can foster structural features of the political system that are in the public interest, followed by free and fair elections. In a scenario in which these take place, the U.N. would be the only entity with the kind of broad-based legitimacy and success rate needed for supporting such a process. Ultimately, whichever framework emerges in the future must be one that all the people of Afghanistan together deliberate on and determine, not just the country’s elite.